Cam Newton and the Adult Learning Model
And how it affects his "clutchness"
As some of you guys know I play a lot of poker and I have been successful in the sense that I win more than I lose and have been able to grind out a living from it. I always try to consume as much literature on poker as I can (I have a library full of books about poker in my office), so at this point there isn’t anything about poker strategy that I probably don’t already know. That has made it harder for me to find new literature that would actually be helpful for improving my game.
Then the other day I came across a book called “The Mental Game of Poker” by Jared Tendler, who was mental coach for many golfers and now for poker players. It isn’t a poker strategy book, but it is a book about dealing with tilt, confidence, and coping with variance. I thought “This could be really helpful” so I bought the book.
In the second chapter of the book the author talks about the Adult Learning Model. After reading it I couldn’t help but think about the Panthers and Cam Newton and thinking that it may help to explain some of the things I have said about Cam and his development.
The Adult Learning Model (ALM) has 4 basic levels of learning certain skills:
1) unconscious incompetence- basically you don’t even know what you don’t know. You are blind to the ways that you lack skill
2) conscious incompetence- you know what you don’t know, but doesn’t mean that you have skill. But you know why you don’t have skill
3) conscious competence- this means you have put in a lot of work and repetition, and as long as you think about what you have learned to gain these skills you remain competent. If you forget, or don’t focus on it, you can become incompetent again
4) unconscious competence- you have learned a skill so well that it is totally automatic and requires no thinking. It is the Holy Grail of learning.
Now, playing QB isn’t a skill itself, it is a conglomerate of skills that are developed and learned over time. I have talked about Cam Newton learning some of the basic skills of playing QB, which other QBs like Kaepernick, Luck, RG3, Dalton, and Wilson have already acquired because of their multiple years as starters in college. Cam is still in the process of learning some of those things or more accurately, he has learned them, he knows it, and if he focuses on those things he is very good.
Basically what I am saying is that Cam Newton is consciously competent at a lot of skills that other QBs who had more experience in college are already unconsciously competent at. Whether that is footwork, fundamentals, checking down, managing the offense, reading defenses, etc, right now Cam is good at those things when he focuses and thinks about them.
It also explains why he may be having more trouble than some of those guys in “clutch” situations, which I will get to in a moment
This is why Cam’s potential is so exciting to me. There is an actual limit to how much the human mind can think about in a given moment. And as certain skills that Cam have move from conscious competence to unconscious competence, it literally frees up space in his mind to process and think about other things in those given moments. It is the literal definition of “the game slowing down”. So even though right now he is at worst on par with all of the aforementioned QBs, his mind actually has more room to grow and expand than those other QBs. That is why his upside is so much better than theirs in my opinion.
That brings me to his “clutchness”. I have said several times that Cam’s ability to close games will improve as he gets more experienced. Some of the Cam detractors have pointed out that other aforementioned QBs have similar NFL experience and have had more success in late game situations than Cam and therefore Cam Newton is a “choker”. The third chapter of the book talks about emotions and I think it will help articulate what I mean.
This part is fascinating (at least to me but I am kind of a nerd).
The brain is organized in a hierarchy of three different levels. The first level has all the most important functions of the brain (breathing, heart rate, balance). It also is where unconscious competence is stored. The second level is the emotional system. The third level is higher brain functions (thinking, planning, awareness, etc).
When the second level of the brain (emotions) becomes overactive, it shuts down the third level or higher brain functions. It doesn’t completely shut it down; the amount of thinking lost is directly proportional to your level of emotion. So the higher your level of emotion is past the threshold, the less you can think.
So what does all that have to do with Cam’s “clutchness”? The higher the amount of stress and emotion, the harder it is for a player to access his higher brain functions. That means that it is harder to process information, and thus, it negatively affects you conscious competence. It becomes harder to think and make decisions.
So when there are “clutch” situations, that naturally causes an increase in stress and emotion, Cam’s brain prevents him from accessing his conscious competency as easily as he did in the other parts of a football game.
However, what emotions don’t affect is the first level of your brain’s hierarchy (breathing, balance, etc). This also happens to be where unconscious competency is stored. So when your emotions become overactive, it has zero affect on Cam’s unconscious competency.
As more and more of Cam's skills move from conscious competency to unconscious competency, the less and less stressful and emotional game situations will affect his play. And it also may help explain why other QBs who had more experience starting in college, are having more success in those types of situations. It is because they have more skills that they are unconsciously competent in due to their experience, so that situation does not affect them as much.
This in my mind confirms what I have been trying to say, when I say I am not worried about Cam’s performance in “clutch” situations right now. As he becomes more experienced, and more and more skills transition from conscious competency to his unconscious competency, it will have no affect on those skills in those stressful and emotional situations, and will free his mind to process and focus on other information.
I realize this was a little long, and I am sure there will be some tl;dr, but I found this to be fascinating and wanted to share my thoughts on this with you guys.